January 20, 2012 9:13 pm

My winter retreat

A ranch for rent in Kenya’s Laikipia plateau is the perfect place for a writer to work and relax

As the sun rises, the dusty hides of zebra and gazelle, hartebeest and elephants brighten beneath its rays as if under floodlights. The animals peer at our horses with mild, untroubled curiosity as we ride by. The bush stretches before us, empty of sound or visible movement for miles towards the distant hills. We are in heaven, or at least our heaven.

I am an Africa groupie, and have enjoyed adventures and visited safari lodges there through 40 years and a dozen countries. But seven years ago I agreed with my wife, Penny, that we were tired of holidays in permanent motion and enforced socialising with strangers. We decided to rent a place we could get to know, and where I could write, in my favourite destination: Kenya.

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I asked travel agent Tim Best to find us a house with a pool, tennis court and horses, as far as possible from civilisation. He came up with Kamogi cattle ranch, 1,750m up on the Laikipia plateau, an hour’s light plane flight north-west of Nairobi. It is the family home of Nick and Heather Day, who divide their lives between Kenya and Ireland.

That first year, a little apprehensively, we rented the place for five winter weeks. We have been going back ever since, having fallen in love. The setting is sublime: thatched cottages amid an exotic garden and pool, the bush stretching to the horizon.

Each day at dawn we ride out for a couple of hours. After breakfast – sometimes a picnic in the bush – I work, while others laze around the pool or watch the endless parade of birds – weavers and firefinches, sunbirds and cordon bleux – squabbling for crumbs. Mungai, the cook, is a wizard who produces twice-daily feasts, mostly from the vegetable garden’s produce: herb ravioli, spinach pancakes, spiced duck, cheese soufflés, risotto to dream of. Lunch is a big event, followed by siestas and tennis on a dusty, erratic clay court.

Most evenings we drink at home, but occasionally we bump a couple of miles by open Land Rover to the lake at the edge of the ranch, where we drink iced rosé and watch hippos’ heads rising cautiously above the reed beds. After dinner, we spend evenings around the big wood fire in the living room, surrounded by the whimsical clutter of polo sticks and old colonial photographs, grand piano and deep chintzy sofas – old Britain in Africa.

We often drive a few miles to picnic in neighbouring Loisaba Wilderness, where there is a richer game population of elephants, giraffe, impala – and a hide for leopard-watching, which provided one of this season’s thrills.

About now you may ask: “But what about security, after all the publicity about kidnaps at Lamu?” Laikipia is far from the coast, and while there have been occasional tribal scuffles and trouble with game poachers in the area, we have never felt a moment’s concern for our safety.

Familiarity is one of the joys of revisiting Kamogi year after year. We now know the Days as friends. The staff never changes: Mungai and his assistant, Reuben of the sweet smile; Buni, the enigmatic old driver; Mutegi the syce [groom] who can spot game in thick cover at 500 yards.

We create our own company by importing the same friends annually – indeed, I could not afford the rent unless others shared the cost. I sometimes moan a bit about the bother of synchronising travel arrangements but that is all forgotten as soon as we arrive. Downsides? Some people twitch about the lions roaring close at night and on a working ranch you should not expect Mandarin Oriental standards, though the staff are better than any hotel’s.

Kamogi ranch's sitting room

The ranch's sitting room

Something is always happening. One morning last year I was sitting at my usual workplace in the farm office, writing a book chapter. Mungai came in and said: “B’wana Nick says take the Land Rover and meet him beyond the airstrip.” We drove for 20 minutes until we found Nick Day in his own vehicle with his wife peering intently through binoculars.

“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never before seen 15 lions moving together here in daylight,” he said. For 40 minutes, enchanted, we watched the cats. Then I went back to writing about the second world war.

A few years ago, a friend stood beside me on the lawn looking out at a glorious morning. “This is the real Africa,” he said, with a happy sigh. Oh no, I said, it is absolutely not. The real Africa, not many miles beyond our horizon, is impoverished, often lawless and murderous, consumed by a land hunger that threatens every property owner in the continent, especially white ones.

A recent UN study shows that the population of big animals – excluding elephants and rhino – in African national parks has fallen by 59 per cent since 1970, partly as a consequence of meat poaching but chiefly because of population expansion and habitat loss. The lion population may have dropped as low as 20,000, from 400,000 in 1955. There were less than 8m Kenyans at independence in 1963; there are now 40m.

We know that we live a fantasy at Kamogi, insulated from much of the ugliness that crowds in upon Africa: people and wild animals are simply not compatible. “I’m afraid fences are probably the only future for game,” a lodge manager said to me. Ours may be the last generation of tourists privileged to ride and drive among animals that roam freely, rather than being penned to shield them from relentless human persecution.

Some of our friends combine a stay at Kamogi with a week on the coast. We like Lamu well enough, but the place does not hold my heart as does the ranch: too many people. In the bush, a distant plane passes maybe once a day. One forgets what crowds look like.

I find there a sense of tranquillity and contentment that makes it a perfect working place for a writer. And, of course, we love the small frisson of adventure and risk that goes with living close to wild animals. On our last ride this year we met a lioness at 30 yards, and a puff adder snapped at my horse’s hooves before being killed by Mutegi. I have no idea what an afterlife may be like, but it will be enough for me if it matches Kamogi, in the company of those I love.

Kamogi Ranch (www.kamogi.com) sleeps up to 10 and costs £260 per person per night, full board. Bookings are handled by Original Travel (www.originaltravel.co.uk). Max Hastings flew from London to Nairobi with Virgin (www.virgin-atlantic.com); returns cost from £581

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